Landslide threat to town limits reservoir use by dry Western Slope
Federal dam operators have refused to draw Green Mountain Reservoir all the way down because of a potential landslide poised above the lakeside town of Heeney.Alice Johns, spokeswoman for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, said the water that must remain in the reservoir won’t stay there at the expense of Front Range diverters.Instead, the bureau’s policy means Western Slope users will have 20,000 acre feet less water available in this year of extreme drought.”They are administering a project for one area at the expense of another area,” said Scott Balcomb, a Glenwood Springs water lawyer representing many Western Slope water users.His comments came Tuesday at the regular quarterly board meeting of the Colorado River Water Conservation District in Glenwood Springs.Balcomb said he’s drafted a letter calling for the bureau to curtail Front Range water diversions “until this is fixed, period.”And if the agency doesn’t comply, Balcomb suggested that the River District and Western Slope residents “follow that with a fusillade of gunfire over the Continental Divide.”Balcomb said he doesn’t want to see the tiny village of Heeney get pushed into the reservoir by a landslide, but he believes that Front Range water users should suffer the shortage, not those on the Western Slope.Green Mountain Reservoir was built near the mouth of the Blue River, near Kremmling, in the 1930s to replace the massive transmountain water diversions taken by the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District for Front Range farms and cities.It holds a total of 154,000 acre-feet of water, divided into layered “pools” claimed for various users.An acre-foot is 325,851 gallons, enough to cover a football field 10 inches deep, and the amount of water needed to irrigate about an acre of farmland or supply five urban residents for a year.The bottom pool of 7,000 acre feet is the dead pool, below the level of the outflow pipes. The next pool is 52,000 acre-feet designated to replace transmountain diversions that would otherwise be shut off in favor of senior water rights on the Western Slope.That middle pool is released downstream into the Colorado River while the Northern District continues to divert water through the Adams Tunnel.The top 100,000 acre-feet is for Western Slope users, particularly those whose water rights were filed after the reservoir was built, but before the last serious drought in 1977.That top layer also includes water held by contract by private companies and municipalities and by the Silt Water Conservancy District.This year, the reservoir didn’t come close to filling, and as the drought continues, users on both sides of the Divide are arguing over how to use the dwindling supplies.Enter the Heeney landslide, which made its last major move in January 1963 when the bureau drained Green Mountain Reservoir down to the dead pool to do maintenance on the dam.The conditions were far different that year than today: It was a wet winter, the reservoir was drawn down very quickly, and a 4.0 magnitude earthquake occurred in eastern Colorado. No on knows exactly what triggered the slide then, but it’s believed that the reservoir draw-down was a major factor.Most of the homes in Heeney have been built since 1963, and many residents were unaware they lived on a landslide, said Don Meyer, the River District’s mapping expert. Now they are worried that a final draining of the reservoir will reactivate the slide – immediately, or when rain or snowfall saturates the 3,000-foot-long landslide this winter.So the bureau is reluctant to pull the reservoir down below the 7,850-foot elevation level. At that level, there is 27,000 acre-feet of water left, including 7,000 in the dead pool.At present, the water level is at 7,900 feet, and the reservoir is holding about 75,000 acre-feet of water. Dam operators are presently releasing about 1,000 acre-feet a day, Meyer said.At that rate, Green Mountain will hit the 7,850-foot level by early September, a time when Grand Valley orchardists still need water to keep fruit trees and vines healthy.”We were looking at drawing Green Mountain down to 7,000, until we got the bad news,” Kuhn said of the landslide.The 20,000 acre-feet the bureau insists on keeping in the reservoir “is a very important margin,” said River District spokesman Chris Treese.Balcomb said bureau officials “have known about (the landslide problem) since ’63, and what have they done? Nothing.””The bureau’s approach is it’s our problem, folks,” he said, appealing to the River District board. “That’s not legally or morally supportable. We need to take the strongest, most aggressive position we can, including litigation.”
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